Tory rail plans 'not honest'
RAIL user groups in the Westcountry have branded Conservative Party plans for the future of the local network as "not honest".
The claim came after the Tories promised not to neglect the Westcountry's much- maligned rail network when building a new high-speed line linking London with the north of England and Scotland.
Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers moved to allay fears that the billions of pounds needed to establish a 250mph service would detract from much-needed investment on the existing "classic" rail network.
Speaking to the Western Morning News during a visit to the region, Ms Villiers said: "We have made it clear that the plans we have for a high-speed rail network will be done alongside proposals to improve our current network.
"There's lots we can do to improve our existing railways and ensure they run better, have a stronger focus on tackling overcrowding and addressing value for money, at the same time as we take forward our longer term plans for delivering a new high- speed network.
"It is important to focus on both."
However, Alan Cousins, secretary of the St Germans Rail User Group in Cornwall, said the Westcountry network would lose out in favour of high-speed lines in other parts of the country. He said: "The Conservatives are not being very honest when they say our local services won't suffer.
"We already know that in parts of France, when the high-speed links were adopted, rural areas paid the price with services and stations being affected.
"While it may be a good idea to back high-speed links in other parts of the country for economic reasons, we need to be worried down here about financial cuts to our services to pay for it. There's only so much money in the transport budget."
Rail travel around the region is blighted by a chronic shortage of carriages, speed restrictions through hilly terrain and problematic stretches, most notably on the South Devon coast through Dawlish.
Last month, the influential Commons Transport Committee highlighted concerns that the £30 billion needed for new high-speed lines may be to the detriment of regions not connected to the first phase of the high-speed revolution.
This was echoed in a separate report from the South West Committee who warned faster journey times and improved access to the north could disadvantage the region.
The warnings came just before Transport Secretary Lord Adonis gave Government backing to a new 335-mile London to Scotland high-speed rail network. In 2008, the Conservatives announced their plans would connect London, Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, with construction to begin in 2015.
The party said it was the first step towards achieving a "national high speed rail network to join up major cities across England, Scotland and Wales".
Asked by the WMN whether this meant key stations in the far South West, Ms Villiers said she was "not drawing a map now" but that the region would be "an important part of national network".
She re-iterated a Conservative pledge to scrap plans for a third runway at Heathrow and plough the savings into a massive upgrade for the country's railways – including a new rail hub linking Devon and Cornwall directly with Heathrow, one of the world's busiest airports.
Independent regional transport analyst Neil Mitchell said improvements upcountry would affect services in areas like the Westcountry.
"The general impression in the trade is that Theresa Villiers, while being a perfectly competent politician, does not have a realistic grasp of what's happening in the rail industry," he said.
"High-speed rail links and electrification are all extremely costly. One has to ask 'How is this all going to happen?'
"There will have to be major cutbacks."